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Cancer claims punk guitarist who played with fury to match talent

Tony Johnson: 1957-2012

Michael Corcoran

In the early 1980s, Austin was swarming with punk bands, but the most intense of the lot was unquestionably the Offenders, who were such a swirling menace of hard-core brothers that all four assumed the surname of Offender. Guitarist Tony Offender (nee Johnson) led the sonic assault with a hybrid style that bridged heavy metal and punk.

Johnson died Saturday after a 20-month battle with lung cancer. He was 54.

"Tony was a little older than us, so we followed his lead," said Offenders drummer Pat Doyle. The three original members met as Army brats in Killeen. "He would come up with these massive riffs, and we would play along."

With his long hair, Johnson looked like a metal player, but he was a master of lockdown punk rock, playing faster and with more ferocity than anyone else on the scene.

Many years later, there's not been an Austin band that bests that wicked power. Even national acts like Black Flag would come to town and, having seen the Offenders, audiences wouldn't be as impressed.

From their first gig at Raul's in June 1980 until they broke up amid creative differences in 1986, the Offenders released two influential thrash-punk albums. Their signature tune, "I Hate Myself," was relegated to a 7-inch single.

More well-respected as a musician than well-paid, Johnson raised his family by working for 30 years at the Paramount Theatre as the head custodian. The theater's marquee honored him Sunday.

After being diagnosed with cancer in 2010, Johnson spent more than a year in the hospital, said Laura Croteau, the mother of his children Natalie, 27, and Alex, 24. Two and a half weeks ago, Johnson fell in the shower and broke his hip. Doctors then discovered that his cancer had spread to his entire body, and he was put into hospice care.

He leaves behind his children and his mother Richardine Koon of Augusta, Ga., but a music community that felt more alive when he plugged in, dug in and blasted hair all over the walls.

Many will gather Sunday at the Scoot Inn for a tribute to the guitarist they called Tony Offender because his musical identity was so powerful. At noon June 9, Johnson's ashes will be shot out of a Civil War cannon at the Oakwood Cemetery. A member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Johnson asked for his ashes to be spread in tribute to his ancestors.

Being shot out of a cannon also fit the explosive musical style of the blazing guitarist who also threw shards of Jimi Hendrix into his mix.